Master of Middle-earth: The Fiction of J. R. R. Tolkien
The Lord of the Rings, Vol. I: The Fellowship of the Ring
The Lord of the Rings, Vol. II: The Two Towers
The Lord of the Rings, Vol. III: The Return of the King
“FRODO LIVES!” The message is still printed on buttons, chalked up on subway platforms, though it is years since the first explosion of the campus cult. Does Tolkien live? Are his tales more endurable than the cult? Mr. Kocher is sure that they are, and his study will help readers to see why: not readers who, like Edmund Wilson, are resistant to fairy tales and think them fit for children only, but those who, like Coleridge, believe that such tales can nourish imagination and extend human sympathies.
Mr. Kocher marks out the ground on which we should take Tolkein seriously. He is a sensible, unpedantic guide to the Middle-earth; not for him the excessive symbol-hunting or structural analysis of some academic hobbit-fanciers. He points out patterns and correspondences which might be overlooked when the stories are gulped down at a first reading. He discusses the ideas of morality and social order which underlie The Lord of the Rings, and the characteristics of the different kinds of beings (hobbits, elves, dwarves, etc.). He describes Tolkien’s minor works, some hard to come by, and shows how they relate to the trilogy. He is sure that in telling his tales Tolkien is telling us something about ourselves and our world that we ought to hear—and that this particular form was the right way to tell it. Fresh from the 279 pages of The Hobbit and the 1,069 of The Lord of the Rings, I agree with Mr. Kocher’s general estimate, though here and there I have reservations.
The Hobbit, first published in 1937, was avowedly a children’s book: the tale of Bilbo, who went on an adventure with dwarves and a wizard and came back with a ring and a load of treasure. (Hobbits are shown as pretty much like humans, but half the size, and nicer—keen on food and with deep fruity laughs.) The tone of the story is confidential and friendly, very much like that of The Wind in the Willows: a grownup unfolding marvels to a child, sometimes stopping to explain or comment (“It does not do to leave a live dragon out of your calculations”), often sharing a joke.
The prime joke of course is the contrast between commonsensical, home-loving hobbit Bilbo and the awful happenings he is involved in: some dread event is presented in high style—“with that the messengers departed swiftly”—to be instantly deflated: “Bilbo, of course, disapproved of the whole turn of affairs.” When, almost accidentally, he picks up the magic ring in a dark and dangerous cavern, all he can think of is frying bacon and eggs in his own kitchen back home.
There are games with language, riddles and parodies. Bilbo on his dignity can sound like a pompous committee-man; Thorin, leader of the dwarves, like a patronizing company president handing out gold watches to staff with long service. The purpose…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.